by Julia Seymour
At that time Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel. She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites came up to her for judgment. She sent and summoned Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali, and said to him, “The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you, “Go, take position at Mount Tabor, bringing ten thousand from the tribe of Naphtali and the tribe of Zebulun. I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the Wadi Kishon with his chariots and his troops; and I will give him into your hand.” Barak said to her, “If you will go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.” And she said, “I will surely go with you; nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.” (Judges 4:4-9)
In Judges 4, Deborah is the judge over Israel. She sits under a palm tree and settles disputes; she offers wisdom and prophesies from the Lord. She sends for the leader of the Israelite army, Barak, and gives him a prophecy of a successful battle against another general. Barak listens to Deborah and promises to engage in the battle, but only if Deborah will come with the army.
While this might not sound like a problem to us, there is a little catch. By asking Deborah to accompany the army, Barak is using her like a good-luck charm, counting on the truth of God’s words by keeping the prophet close by. Deborah sees through his actions and promises to accompany the army, but because of Barak’s doubting, the enemy general will ultimately be killed by a woman.
When I first felt called to be a pastor, I lived in an area of the country laden with denominations that do not ordain women. When I would speak of my sense of call, I would often hear, “There are no women preachers in the Bible.” When I would mention Deborah, I was corrected, “Deborah’s not a preacher, she’s a prophet.” I see.
In other words, unless there was a cookie-cutter, black suit, white collar, booming voice and helmet-haired woman preacher in the Bible, then God must not want it to be. Never mind that most of the male pastors I know do not look much like Jesus or Peter likely did.
In Judges, a woman named Jael lures Sisera, Barak’s enemy general, into a tent. She soothes him to sleep with some warm milk—and then drives a tent peg through his temple. It’s not exactly a bedtime story for your kids, but it’s powerful stuff. The doubting leader of the army doesn’t get the victory. It goes, instead, to Jael and to Deborah, the judge whose prophecies came true.
The Bible is full of women of great power: Rebecca, Abigail, Tamar, Rahab, Deborah, Jael, Lydia, Priscilla, Esther, Ruth, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, Martha, and Mary of Nazareth. Some of these names are very familiar and some are less so. Usually the familiar ones are stories we have heard again and again, in part because the women in those stories fit our contemporary expectations for women. In the Bible, these women are brave, take risks, and defy expectations. They save their families, rescue their husbands, teach apostles, carry on the family line, supply the funds, and share the good news.
For too long, we have suffered the idea that being outspoken or bold goes against the biblical standards of feminity. No more. We are made co-creators with God through biblical call and through our baptisms. Since the beginning of creation, God has called, gathered, and sent women and men to do work with the Spirit in the world.
Too often we treat the relationships between men and women as a zero-sum game. In order for someone to win, we think, someone has to lose. This is not so with God. Everyone wins.
The strength of women helps their brothers, sons, fathers, husbands, and co-workers. The vigor of men empowers their sisters, mothers, daughters, wives and co-workers. The apostle Paul wrote to the Galatians, “As many of you were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no slave or free, there is no male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:27–28) Paul isn’t saying that are not differences between men or women, but that we are all the same in the eyes of God, and we are to look at each other with those same eyes—eliminating hierarchy, competition, and exclusion.
Many international aid agencies are beginning to realize that successful work in communities around the globe often stems from engaging the women first. Women know the resources and the stories of where they live.
Engaging with women allows aid workers to gain cultural sensitivity and to build infrastructures and communications systems that will last. There might not be women preachers in the Bible or even in some contemporary faith communities, but there are still women prophets and women proclaimers—pointing to God’s truth and speaking that truth to power.
We must learn to listen to the Deborahs among us and then, unlike Barak, go out in faith, believing that God goes with us wherever we go.
The Rev. Julia Seymour is pastor of Lutheran Church of Hope in Anchorage, Alaska. You can read her blog here.
Questions for discussion:
1. Tell the story of a powerful woman in your life. Where did her power come from? How did she use it? How does she still affect you?
2. Who is your favorite woman in the Bible? What draws you to her story? What would her story be today—who would she be, what would she do, and what would happen to her?
3. In what ways are women the center of communities? How does this happen? What are the struggles in being a center of community?
4. In your Bible, look up some of the women listed in the faith reflection. Write down adjectives to describe them and their actions. Talk about the list of adjectives as standards for biblical womanhood. Write a job description for a biblical woman leader or prophet and discuss how you are qualified for that position.